Tall Orders for an Admiral

November, 2019

Lincoln – The NU Regents have selected retired Vice Admiral Walter E. Carter, Jr., to be the next president of the University of Nebraska.

At first glance, the choice seems incongruous.  Admiral Carter is a native of Rhode Island; he does not have a doctorate or a record of scholarship; he has no experience at land-grant universities and is untested in the agriculture arena, critical to Nebraska.

He might, however, be a good choice.  I confess to a touch of enthusiasm because NU and the U.S. Navy are both institutions dear to my heart and there is more commonality than one might think.

• Admiral Carter has led two academic institutions successfully, the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island and the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.   He knows governments and bureaucracies, federal and state, and faculties.  The Naval Academy is located in a state capital, Annapolis, as is NU in Lincoln.

• NU has a Navy unit on the UNL campus.  Students can minor in Naval Science and receive commissions in the Navy and Marine Corps.  Perhaps Admiral Carter will be given a faculty post in the Naval Science department, from which he can draw on his USNWC connections to explore national security issues for the benefit of NU students and faculty.

• Certain issues transcend state and national borders.  Climate-change flooding threatens the Annapolis campus and the nation's harbors, just as climate-change flooding threatens Nebraska agriculture.  This should form a quick, common bond with the leadership at NU's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which for years has been sounding the alarm, despite the issue's unpopularity in right-wing political circles.

There are three immediate challenges at NU that I hope Admiral Carter will meet with "early and decisive action," a phrase he will know from ship-handling at sea.

One is to re-establish better relations with the Nebraska Legislature, based on mutual respect and the Nebraska Constitution, which places authority over university governance with the Board of Regents.  There must be no more occasions where an NU president is summoned to a freshman senator's office and told which instructors to hire or fire.  A vice admiral should have the stature and experience to handle such situations.  (Perhaps that is one reason for the Regents' hiring decision.)

The second challenge is to bring a broader perspective to matters of agricultural export markets, on which the Nebraska economy is overly dependent.  The current agricultural leadership in Nebraska, including many elected officials, is desperate for a trade deal with China.  Nebraskans now surely realize that it was a grave mistake for President Trump to scrap the TPP, giving China the upper hand in Pacific trade, and to impose tariffs for which farmers suffer retaliation.  Is Nebraska agriculture ready to accept or endorse an even greater blunder to try to restore Nebraska's China exports?  There are clear warning signs that President Trump will abandon Hong Kong and the South China Sea (he has already spoken to Chairman Xi about it) for a trade deal that may please farmers in the Midwest before the 2020 election.  But is this in the U.S. national security interest?

From the Naval War College Review, "Getting Serious About Strategy in the South China Sea:"

Today, the situation in the South China Sea is reaching a critical stage as Chinese advances accumulate, America’s room for maneuver diminishes, and observers throughout the region wonder whether the United States is up to the challenge. And yet Washington still is searching for a strategy.

Admiral Carter, as former leader of the Naval War College, is positioned as no other candidate for NU president to grapple with these issue of immense importance to Nebraska.

The third challenge also deals with rural Nebraska, where the population, counterproductively, is increasingly giving up on higher education.  The results of the 2019 Nebraska Rural Poll "showed a sharp decline in the perceived importance of higher education among respondents."  What got into Nebraskans to make insularity and ignorance attractive?  This is alarming and deserves immediate priority from Nebraska's higher education leadership.

Admiral Carter, welcome to Nebraska.  You have tall orders.

Nebraska Hall of Fame: Two Suggestions

November, 2019

Lincoln –  One of the most famous members of Nebraska's Hall of Fame, William Jennings Bryan, has suffering yet another slight, albeit without apparent intention or malice.  His statue has been moved from the U.S. Capitol to the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward.

The movement out of Washington is innocent enough in Bryan's case, as the Nebraska Legislature determined that it was time for Standing Bear and Willa Cather to represent the state in the Capitol's statuary hall rather than Bryan and J. Sterling Morton.  However, because Morton's removal was strategic to avoid growing embarrassment over his sympathies with slavery and the Confederate cause, some may wonder – incorrectly – if Bryan also had something untoward in his past and it was time for him to go as well.

In reality, Morton and Bryan were political enemies and their pairing in Washington has always been uneasy.  Their paired removal only adds to the irony.

Likewise, the acquisition of Bryan's statue by the Nebraska National Guard Museum is innocent enough and actually quite a coup to help put the museum on the map.   It should stimulate interest in Bryan's military career and his views on foreign policy and imperialism, not just provide another reason to visit Seward.

For Nebraska's political reporter nonpareil, Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal Star, the relocation of Bryan's statue to the museum is too much.  He would like to see Bryan's statue placed on Lincoln's Centennial Mall.  Bryan, he points out, was so much more than a member of Nebraska's National Guard.

That's why the movement of any of his statues elicits notice.  Bryan was the founder of the modern Democratic Party.  He was instrumental in the passage of four amendments to the U.S. Constitution (16, 17, 18, 19).  He was a thorn in the side of bankers.  Perhaps that is why, in the 1960s, Nebraska Republican governor Norbert Tiemann, a Wausa banker, removed Bryan's statue from the front of the Nebraska state capitol, at the head of Centennial Mall, in favor of a less-conspicuous place under a tree at Bryan's Lincoln home, Fairview.

Beyond looking at Bryan's career, now is also a good time to reflect on Bryan's family.  His brother Charles was twice governor of Nebraska and the Democratic nominee for U.S. vice president in 1924.  His wife Mary Baird Bryan was an attorney and a full partner in all her husband's campaigns and offices.  She sat in on meetings of President Wilson's cabinet with her husband, the Secretary of State.

Daughter Ruth Bryan Owen was the first Florida congresswoman and the first woman to be a U.S. ambassador.  She was a delegate to the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations, and is a member of the Florida Women's Hall of Fame.

Bryan's granddaughter Ruth "Kitty" Leavitt, for whom he once had custody after his daughter Ruth's divorce, paradoxically became the wife of Robert Lehman, longtime head of Lehman Brothers, the investment bankers.  Bryan's other daughter, Grace, also married a banker, in California, but is better known for her writing about the Bryan family's world travels.

It is more than appropriate to place a Bryan statue on Lincoln's Centennial Mall.  Another good idea would be for the University of Nebraska to establish a Center for Bryan Studies.  Far from being demoted, Bryan's star is actually rising among historians worldwide.  There is much to discover.  I'd like to know how his travels and his family, especially his daughter Ruth, influenced the development of his abhorrence of eugenics and Social Darwinism, of which we know little beyond H.L. Mencken's clever but superficial reportage at the end of Bryan's life.   

Statues aside, Bryan will never be removed from Washington, as he and several members of his family are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  And presumably his bust is safe in the Hall of Fame corridors of the Nebraska state capitol.

Another Nebraska Hall of Fame development is this new article about one-time nominees Frederic and Edith Clements, founders of the discipline of plant ecology.* Because the work of one cannot be separated from the other, the Nebraska law allowing for only one person to be chosen during a nomination cycle should be amended to allow their joint consideration.  Readers may find it of interest that, through their common university connections, the Clementses were an influence on Willa Cather and on Ruth and Grace Bryan.

*Available through UNL Digital Commons as a publication of the University of Nebraska State Museum staff and affiliates.  https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=unsmaffil

Collin Peterson: Don't Run

November, 2019

Washington –  A Democratic congressman and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, is undecided about making another run for re-election from his Minnesota district.

He thinks he could win but does not look forward to leading a legislative effort on another farm bill.  He says it is getting harder every time to pass one.

I'm surely not alone in hoping Collin Peterson will retire.  The farm bills he has guided to passage have been woefully short of meeting rural America's needs.  They have been long on special interest protections and short on conservation, nutrition, crop insurance reforms, and developing agricultural markets.

Step back from the minutia of farm bills and look at the big picture:  much of rural America is depopulating; much of it is suffering from obesity and diabetes epidemics; topsoil is eroding at an alarming rate; grocery stores of any kind (let alone those offering healthy food) are ironically disappearing from America's breadbasket regions; trade policy is a tariff-driven shambles.

Note these recent headlines and read their links:

How Washington keeps America sick and fat  (Politico)

Farm Country Feeds America.  But Just Try Buying Groceries There.  (New York Times)

House Democrats Are Failing to Protect Farmers from Trump (Washington Monthly)

It may be unfair to blame Collin Peterson for all of this, but he's been a large part of the problem, as have his fellow Democrats who have written off rural America for their own misguided reasons.  Peterson and the Democrats had a huge opportunity after the 2018 elections, when they took power in the House, to address these issues in 2019 rather than pass a 2018 lame-duck farm bill still shaped by the discredited theories of Earl ("Get big or get out") Butz, but they did not.   

Please retire, Collin Peterson.  Step aside for new leadership that is up to the job. 

Veterans Day Remembrances

November, 2019

Lincoln – It's Veterans Day.  In past years I've noted family members who served our country.  This year, special remembrance is due two friends, Dick Ratzlaff and Rich Brenning.

We were in the same Navy ROTC unit at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and often travelled together around the Midwest as part of our Navy basketball team.  Both were mainstays:  Dick was point guard, Rich power forward.  One year, 1963, our team was undefeated in about twenty local and regional games and tournaments.  It tight spots, Rich could always be counted on to hit a jump shot from the corner, and Dick would come through with one of his many steals.

Dick Ratzaff, of Aberdeen, South Dakota, was shot down over Vietnam in 1966 and became a POW for seven years.  He earned a Silver Star for his resistance.  He never fully recovered and died in 1981.

Rich Brenning was lost at sea in 1969, flying off USS Ticonderoga.  Lincoln was his hometown.

Still miss you both.


Student Loan Relief as Tax Cut 2.0

November, 2019

Washington –  Analysts at Moody's Investor Services are floating the idea that student loan debt relief is, for purposes of fiscal stimulus to boost the economy, an alternative to a 2020 tax cut.


A big obstacle, however, is the notion of equity.  Why only borrowers with current balances?  That gives the perception of unfairness and likely will be a hurdle against enactment.

Sixteen months ago in these pages, and again last May, I suggested a refundable, means-tested tax credit based not on current borrower balances but on a calculation of the tuition premium incurred by the college-going generations of the 21st century. 

By no means would such a tax credit be a cure-all for the nation's student loan crisis.  Restoration of bankruptcy protections for student loan borrowers and addressing corruption in the U.S. Department of Education are both essential.  But the recent flurry of interest in using tax policy to address the crisis makes it worthwhile to repeat arguments from an earlier post:

...a means-tested, refundable federal tax credit would be more equitable for all students who went to college in the high-tuition era of the last two decades. It would avoid such problems as unfairness between those in similar economic circumstances who struggled mightily to pay off their loans and those who did not; between those who chose lower priced community colleges or less selective schools and those who did not; and between those who worked to try to pay for college over many years and those who did not. The tax credit could be called the "Tuition Premium Tax Credit," the benefits of which could be used to pay off student debt, or simply used by recipients to recover economically from the high price of college, however it affected them wherever they attended. Such a tax credit would also help remedy generational inequities. The boomer generation benefitted enormously from the long, low tuition era that made paying for college relatively easy. The 2017 tax cut piled more wealth on the boomer generation; it could be trimmed back with savings applied to generational and income-class equity.

House Has Been MIA on Student Loans

November, 2019

Washington – When we last visited the subject of federal student loans a few weeks ago, we had little reason to hope for any breakthroughs that would benefit the nation's many aggrieved and defrauded borrowers.  It was as if the whole country had become inured to student loan corruption.

But much has changed since:

• Secretary Betsy DeVos has been held in contempt of federal district court for violating court orders in thousands of "borrower defense" cases.  Her legal advisor on student loans and consumer protections, Steven Menashi, was nominated to a federal appeals court seat but that nomination is now in trouble in the Senate, as it should be.

• DeVos's first choice to head office of Federal Student Aid in 2017, A. Wayne Johnson, has resigned abruptly from the Department of Education, calling the federal student loan system "fundamentally broken."  He has announced his candidacy, as a Republican, for the Senate based on cancelling most borrowers' loans and providing tax credits to others.

•  The National Student Loan Defense Network, led by former Department officials committed to justice for defrauded borrowers, is suing DeVos and the "corrupt Department of Education" for sending millions of student loan dollars to two for-profit schools despite knowing they were unaccredited, then covering it up and collecting from borrowers on the illegal loans.  NSLDN has already prevailed in other student loan cases.

• The recently appointed COO of  Federal Student Aid, Mark Brown, has released a video promising to do better by borrowers, saying that loan servicers have been reprimanded for improperly collecting on student loans and that certain Department officials have likewise been disciplined.

So what is Congress doing about this?  For most intents and purposes, the House has been missing-in-action.  Although it has held several hearings among its committees and subcommittees, they have fizzled despite excellent panel testimony from student loan experts and victims.  Members got sidetracked by student loan industry arguments that the programs are too complicated to administer, that borrowers themselves are to blame, and that fixes must await new legislation.

I have watched all the hearings.  Only once did I ever hear, from a member, the word "wrongdoing," and only once the word "corruption."  This, despite overwhelming evidence of just that. Corruption has infected the Department for many years.  See earlier posts for examples of perjury, obstruction, and false claims.

The chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, Congressman Bobby Scott, has now threatened to subpoena Betsy DeVos if she does not voluntarily appear before the committee to answer questions about the matter for which she was found in contempt of court, and about the distribution of funds to unaccredited colleges.

That is only the tip of the iceberg.  The chairman must be ready to confront the Secretary over the corruption that has ruined the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and determine what kind of meaningful "reprimands" servicers have ever been given for illegal actions in any program.  He needs to determine which Department officials have been "disciplined" by Mark Brown, if that is indeed the case as claimed.  Are the disciplined officials political appointees or civil servants?  Are they being scapegoated? 

If the system is so bad, as Wayne Johnson concluded, is it because the Department of Education was long ago captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate?  The answer to that is an obvious yes.  The Department's key positions for many years have been filled through a revolving door with industry. 

Whatever Chairman Scott does, he needs to know that another round of fizzled House hearings will make matters worse.  Inconclusive hearings will only encourage more defiant behavior from the DeVos Department, which has proved itself committed to delivering taxpayer funds to voracious appetites in the student loan industry and for-profit colleges, at the expense of taxpayers and borrowers, with disregard for the rule of law.

On the other hand, we can hope that Chairman Scott has now seen what happens when remedies commensurate to the offenses are seriously considered.  The mention by a federal judge of possible jail time for DeVos was quickly followed by one high-level resignation and much apologizing from another.

Congress has many remedies at its disposal.  It's time to let the DeVos Department know that measures from fines to impeachment may be put into play to see that borrowers and taxpayers get the justice due them.

In other words, Chairman Scott, it's time to rise to the occasion.

American Resolve in Doubt

November, 2019

Berlin – In 1945, this city was a mess.  After the Nazi surrender, Russian troops took revenge on the Berlin population.  The main parts of the city were rubble.  Power plants and transportation facilities were largely destroyed.  Food supplies were running out.

American, British, and French forces were slow to reach Berlin, hampered at every step by the Red Army.  U.S. Army occupation forces, led by Colonel Frank Howley for the American sector in Berlin and by General Lucius Clay for the entire U.S. Zone in Germany, did not have solid support from Washington.  Many in Congress thought a Soviet takeover of Berlin was inevitable and wanted an American pull-out.

Soviet Russia had designs on all of Europe.  Berlin was the focus for maximum pressure.  If Berlin fell, it would signal that America could not be counted on as a reliable ally.  Berliners knew that, and for a time American resolve was in doubt.  The crisis came in 1948, when the Russians walked out of the four-powers Kommandatura building and began a blockade of West Berlin to force it into submission.

President Truman agreed to a massive effort to try to supply West Berlin by air.  Against all odds, it worked.  At the same time, Secretary of State George Marshall conceived the Marshall Plan for overall European recovery, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created for mutual defense against Soviet Russia.

The story of the Berlin Airlift is well told today at the Allied Museum* on Clayallee in Berlin, the major thoroughfare named after the American who led the effort.  Truman Plaza is nearby.  Berlin today is a thriving beacon of freedom from which the rest of the world can learn.  Thirty one Americans died in the airlift effort.

In a few days, Berlin and the free world will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Berlin's Soviet sector finally collapsed, to be followed soon by the rest of the Soviet puppet state of East Germany.

My family and I were there to see the wall opened in 1989.  It was not a given.  The days leading up to it were tense.  The Red Army still had Berlin surrounded.  What was a given was the resolve of the U.S. and its NATO partners to stand firm.  That made all the difference.

Contrast this with our current international posture of retreat and withdrawal, which now resembles that of early 1948 when American resolve was much in doubt.   Our 45th president is without forward vision or historical insight and talks of getting out of "endless wars."  Even veterans who have fought in recent wars and sacrificed much are showing misguided agreement.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise.  Some of America's wars were ill-advised and tragic:  Viet-Nam and the 2003 invasion of Iraq are stains on the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and George W. Bush.  Johnson misled the American people badly with his prevarications about the Tonkin Gulf attacks; Nixon sabotaged peace talks to win election in 1968; Bush made up Iraq's weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war.

Conversely, we should not forget that U.S. leadership wisely reversed Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, initially defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan, and ended Caliphate rule in much of Syria.

That these successes were not properly consolidated in their aftermath does not mean they should be lumped in with our failures.  It means that those who did not consolidate them must be held accountable, Democratic and Republican presidents alike.  They should have learned from President Truman, who knew that Berlin came at such cost that it could not be abandoned.

Our current president is going one step further than retreating from America's historic role in protecting freedom.  He is casting doubt on what America stands for.  In 1948, it was understandable that some American public opinion was against remaining in Berlin to defend Germans, who had been our enemy.  In 2019, however, an American president is shamefully turning his back on Kurds, our ally in the fight against the Caliphate.  That is beyond the pale.  America is also abandoning the cause of freedom in China, as China exterminates the Uighur people and threatens democracy in Hong Kong. 

It is well to remember 1948 and the Berlin airlift to note that our opponent then was Soviet Russia, bent on expansion.  How little changes.  Russia, still led by a former Soviet agent, is now our geopolitical opponent in Syria and Ukraine.  President Truman knew what he had to do and took courageous action to save the free world from Russian totalitarianism.  Our current president seems not to know which side he is on.

I am one veteran who yearns for another Harry Truman and will do everything possible to see that America returns to its proper, hard-won role in world affairs.

* I am proud to say that my late wife, a German citizen with great respect for America, helped in the creation of the museum. 

A Tour of FU Berlin

October, 2019

Berlin – While much was going on in this blog's other capital cities (in Washington, a top federal student loan official quit to run for the Senate; and in Lincoln, the Board of Regents picked a new NU president), I spent the day of October 25th on a walking tour of the Berlin university campus where I studied and wrote a dissertation three decades ago.

• From the U-Bahn at Thielplatz, the Harnack Haus is only a short walk.  It is a conference center now, but once was an American military officers' club where my family and I had privileges.  It was often a welcome place of respite from the academic pressures at Freie Universität Berlin.

• Onward to the Audimax, a large auditorium noted for the famous speakers it has accommodated.  President Kennedy spoke here in 1963 before his more famous speech at Schöneberger Rathaus.  Rudi Dutschke changed German politics forever with his 1967 protest speeches on behalf of the student movement.  Some two dozen portraits of famous Audimax speakers hang suspended in the grand staircase, above the comings and goings of present-day students.

• Across a campus mall of grasses and forbs in the direction of Corrensplatz is the forgotten site of the home of Fritz Haber, the German scientist whose reputation is still disputed despite his Nobel prize.  During WWI, he was on the faculty of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, a research organization that was converted after WWII into the FU Berlin campus.

• Adjacent to Corrensplatz are two buildings with small plaques to explain their significance.  One is the former Kommandantura, where after WWII the four victorious powers administered the city.  It now houses the FU president's office.  Across the street is the Hahn-Meintner building, once a physics laboratory for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where the atom was first split in 1938.  Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel prize for physics.

• Across Habelschwerterallee is the huge classroom complex known as the Rostlaube and the Silberlaube.  Here I once made friends with many other foreign students who were working on their German language requirements (necessary for all exams).

• Toward the U-Bahn at Dahlem-Dorf is the JFK Institute, where my advisor, Professor Dr. Ekkehart Krippendorff, had his office.  A political scientist and peace researcher, he was also famous for his own academic freedom case.

FU Berlin has, for me, the feel of a real university, dedicated solely to education and research.  Its current president is a mathematician, from the ranks of the faculty.  It has been designated as one of Germany's elite universities and therefore qualifies for extra funding from the government.  It has no football team.  Translated into English, it is known as the Free University of Berlin.  The word free does not refer to its cost of attendance (although fees are minimal, if one is admitted), but to the freedom of ideas and to political freedoms.

Threats Foreign and Domestic

October, 2019

Berlin – Last week there was a large demonstration here, coursing through the streets of Berlin's Neukölln and Kreuzberg neighborhoods on behalf of Rojava, the Kurdish homeland in northern Syria.  Many Kurds live in Berlin.  Signs of support hang from windows.

At least some of the many Turks who also live in Berlin are not happy with the Turkish invasion of Rojava, or with the Turkish government generally.  At a sundries shop in Kreuzberg, the owners engaged us about our respective homelands.  We said we were Americans from Washington, DC, but at the moment not proud of our country's actions in the Middle East.  They identified their hometown in Turkey and said they were not happy with their government, either.

Russia, with Turkey's help, is moving in on Syria, to expand territories under the Syrian tyrant Assad.  Rojava is threatened with genocide.

The Russian threat also looms in Ukraine, abetted by feckless Americans, which include not only the president but his so-called base.  It casts a shadow over Europe, as described so well yesterday by Ambassador William Taylor in his testimony to Congress:

"...if Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace.  In contrast, if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world."

I look for some sign that my all-Republican Nebraska congressional delegation will come to its senses, but they seem paralyzed by fear of the money and power being amassed to discipline any Republican who steps out of line.  Whose money and power it is, is not clear.  Some of it, recent developments show, is foreign.

What with Ambassador Taylor's testimony, the impeachment inquiry may move from definitions of high crimes and misdemeanors to what constitutes bribery and even treason.  How is withholding military aid for a political favor not bribery?  How does advancing Russia's interests above America's, repeatedly, not raise issues of treason?  Let's not dance around the issues.  Ambassador Taylor has done America a great service and we need to make the most of it, the sooner the better.


European Flags as Symbols

October, 2019

Berlin – On a day when the British parliament voted to delay Brexit once again, the flag of the European Union flew proudly in Berlin in front of the Chancellery.  As if in victory.

I happened to walk by the Chancellery during this symbolic occasion and take the photo below.  As it so happens, the E.U. flag is unfurling briskly in the breeze, as the German flag remains comparatively listless.  Internationalism over nationalism, symbolically, and fitting for 21st century Germany, which has staked its future on collective European strength.  

Later the same evening, at the Brandenburg gate the recorded words of two American presidents rang out over a crowd assembled to see a light show at Pariser Platz.  There was sustained applause for each:  

"Ich bin ein Berliner;" 

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Just what do the current British and American leaders think they are accomplishing by pushing for the return to a kind of nationalism that resulted in world wars?  They should instead be building on the British and American achievements that have given the world decades of relative peace and brought tyrants to account.  

The British must hold a second referendum on Brexit.  The first one was demonstrably tainted.  Now it's clear what is at stake.  

The Americans should get back as quickly as possible to world leadership based on freedom and human rights.  May we soon see a successful Amtsenthebungsverfahren. 

Berlin Billboards

October, 2019

Berlin – Two bestsellers of long ago focused on this city and its turbulent 20th century history:  Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich and Leon Uris's Armageddon.  I've been reading them in a new context, the 21st century American foreign-policy collapse.

Speer wrote first-hand of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  Uris wrote of the heroic Berlin Airlift, when the city was saved from the grasp of the Soviet Union by a constant rotation of supply aircraft between Berlin and the western zone. 

Berlin is now capital of a free, democratic, united Germany and de facto leader of Europe.  The sacrifices of Americans to defeat the Nazis and the communist totalitarians paid off, which should be a constant celebration of a united America.

Instead, past American sacrifices and efforts are now being mocked in our own country and around the globe by those who would tear down the free world step by step through disinformation and propaganda and replace it with authoritarian governments subservient to the likes of Russia, China, Turkey, Hungary, and the Philippines.

Germany has a special history with propaganda.  Speer reminds us how Josef Goebbels mastered its use in the rise of the Nazis with his Hitler-featured rallies and his command of the mass media.  It is no wonder that the current German government is mounting its own counter-propaganda campaign against authoritarianism by reminding its citizens that it is a Rechtsstaat, or country of the rule of law.

Today, at the S-Bahn at Botanischer Garten and the U-Bahn at Kottbusser Tor, I saw large billboards placed by the federal ministry of justice.  See an example in the photo below, which offers the Rechtsstaat, the backbone of democracy, as protection against arbitrariness and as pursuer of justice. 

The billboards are shocking, not for what they say, but that they exist at all.  They are evidence that the American successes of the last century to help establish Germany as a strong democracy, and to protect our own, are in peril, the sacrifices perhaps for naught.  This is more than sobering, it is frightening.

First Sea Duty, USS Rainier (AE-5)

October, 2019

Washington –  Three recent memoir posts have recounted naval training in the early 1960s, in preparation for U.S. Navy active duty service.  This post recalls my first tour of active duty, aboard USS Rainier (AE-5), home-ported in Concord, California.

In 1966, I was to become the ship's communications officer and division officer for Rainier's radiomen, signalmen, and electronics technicians.

I reported aboard ship in the fall of 1966, in San Diego, after several weeks of training at the naval base in Newport, Rhode Island, where I learned cryptographic methods and how to operate crypto equipment.  From San Diego, Rainier sailed to San Francisco and then departed from Mare Island in February of 1967 for the Philippines and attachment to the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

For the next several months, Rainier's mission was to replenish other Navy ships in the South China Sea, the Tonkin Gulf, and along the South Vietnamese coast.  Mostly we operated out of Subic Bay in the Philippines, but also put in at other ports:  Manila; Hong Kong; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; and Sattahip, Thailand.

Rainier was an old ship, built in 1940 as a C-2 cargo hull with two massive Nordberg diesels for propulsion.  Despite antiquated equipment, we won a coveted "E" award for efficiency.  Late in 1967 Rainier returned to its homeport via Yokosuka, Japan, and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

This was the height of the Vietnam War.  See an earlier, longer post reflecting on it.  My hope in 1967 was that both North and South regimes could be replaced.  I bought the books of war analyst and critic Bernard Fall in Kaohsiung and read them aboard ship.  Bernard Fall was killed in Vietnam that year.  In 1968, first with the Tet Offensive and then with Richard Nixon's sabotage of the peace talks, any such hopes were dashed.

For me personally, the Rainier experience was good.  Navy officers get the benefit of being thrust at an early age into responsibility.  There's nothing like being the officer-of-the-deck in tight situations at sea.  I learned much from my first captain, Vincent P. O'Rourke, the very model of a wise sea captain, and from my second, John C. "Jack" Smith, the very opposite, who wrecked the ship's car in the Philippines while driving drunk, and once plowed Rainier into a pier.

With few officers, our wardroom was close-knit; I recall them fondly:  Howard Murphy, chief engineer; Bob Lee, first lieutenant; Tom Stuart, operations officer; Dave Johnson, navigator; George Raines, damage control assistant; Chris Henderson, assistant engineer; pork-chops Pat Ryan and Jim Graber; and Charlie Alderman, gunnery officer and diver.  Murphy and Lee were mustangs, as was the XO. 

The crew was a proud and tough cohort of many different races and backgrounds.  Some ships had racial conflicts.  Not so much on Rainier.  In port, we often sought out a gym for a basketball game, which I organized.  Captain O'Rourke joined us once, which impressed the crew as they enjoyed playing with the captain.

The photos below show the work of our deck division sailors, who risked their lives daily to fulfill the ship's mission; my view through binoculars at two approaching ships in the South China Sea; Rainier signalmen at a day's end; in-port at Yokosuka, Japan, late 1967. 

Inured to Corruption

October, 2019

Washington – A federal judge has made waves by threatening to put Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in jail for contempt of court.  Under DeVos, and in contradiction to Judge Sallie Kim's order, the Department of Education has continued to collect on thousands of student loans that should have been cancelled because the loans were made fraudulently by a for-profit school, Corinthian College.

Judge Kim may not actually jail DeVos, but she has raised the possibility.

The waves were not high enough, however, to draw the attention of the higher education trade press, namely The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, neither of which took note.  It is not higher education news, quite apparently, when borrowers are stiffed in the thousands and the Secretary ignores the courts.  It has become routine.  Perhaps it will be news to the trade press if and when the law and judges' orders are followed.*

Later this month we'll learn what Judge Kim will do in the face of the Secretary's contempt.  I hope it is not a fine that the Department will pay with taxpayer dollars.  That would be adding insult to injury.  A fine to be paid personally by the Secretary would be almost as bad, as she is a billionaire.  More fitting would be a hefty personal fine that would be paid to the non-profit organizations that have had to bring suits on behalf of borrowers whose protections have been violated in a variety of Department programs, to include TEACH and PSLF.  Or a few days in jail.

To some, it is not particularly newsworthy when a federal agency like the Department of Education is captured and controlled by the interests it is supposed to be regulating.  There is a vast amount of political science literature on the subject.  In this case, there is even a smoking gun: the for-profit college association publicly asked the Secretary to ignore the law on "borrower defense," and she did.  But she is not the first cabinet official to take her orders from those she is regulating.

Arguably, the whole higher education community has now become inured to the corruption that feeds off the victimization of student loan borrowers.   It is almost as if there is a law of nature that determines how industries and organizations exploit the vulnerable.  In biology, such a natural relationship is observed between ants and aphids. Aphids supply the sweet nourishment for ants that herd them.  If the aphids grow wings and try to take off, like borrowers trying properly under the law to escape their loans, the ants strip them of their wings and keep them captive.  It's hard to think of a better analogy to describe the DeVos Department and how it strips borrowers of their rights.  Borrowers who were legally entitled to loan discharge were slapped instead with new collection actions, like wage garnishment and tax refund seizures.

For public consumption, the Department has recently started to put blame on its servicers and loan collection contractors for violations of laws and regulations.  This would resonate truthfully were it not for the existence of a robust revolving door network between the Department and the servicers.  If the Department is serious about servicer shortcomings, it would disqualify offending servicers from competing for more business, including the upcoming NextGen awards.  Unless that happens, it looks like business as usual.

Why not some jail time for contempt of court?  Nothing else has worked.
* During the week following Judge Kim's condemnation of Secretary Devos, Inside Higher Ed covered stories such as a student who sold pot out of a dorm room, a professor who used grant money at a strip club, and a study by a conservative organization (AEI)  that suggested borrower complaints are misguided, the real problem being over-complicated legislation.  But about contempt of court for ruining the lives of thousands of borrowers?  Nichts. Nada. 

Shocking Declines in Birds and Insects

October, 2019

Lincoln – Regardless how important other events seem this year, the top bad-news development is the shocking decline of birds and insects.  The natural world seems to be on the edge of collapse, judging by these two indicators.

Bird species like quail and eastern and western meadowlarks are down precipitously.  In fact, such grassland birds are declining more rapidly than all others.

On our local grassland here, one can still see these birds.  Baltimore orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks, too, are present in the adjacent riparian areas.

But for how long?  We're hopeful that a new environmental plan for the area will soon start a process to protect these streams and grasslands.  It can't come soon enough.

Our national bird, the bald eagle, was saved from extinction by purposeful action some years ago, so there is hope.

What about our state bird, the western meadowlark?  We'll soon know local reactions when the environmental plan is published later this year.  Will historic grassland habitats be saved, or bulldozed?

It's harder to know what to make of the "insect apocalypse."  Among our most beneficial insects, bees, the decline has been so severe that the Adee beekeeper family, originally from Nebraska, has taken its bees out of our state because the environmental challenges are just too great.  According to press reports"The official Nebraska state insect is feeling the sting of agricultural chemicals, unfavorable weather, flooding and mites, according to beekeepers big and small." 

We raise bees on our property, trying to provide suitable habitat.  But last year was the worst ever, according to our beekeepers.  

It's all shocking.  When the natural world is in peril, all else must be put in diminished context.

More on Hong Kong and U.S. Policy Toward China

October, 2019

Lincoln – In an earlier post, I looked at Hong Kong then and now, five decades apart.  Soon thereafter, the NYT also looked back at the 1967 riots, which were much different compared to the 2019 riots.

Back then some of the rioters waved Little Red Books, with the sayings of Chairman Mao, which could be purchased at a special Red China outlet store in British Hong Kong.  This is also where Hong Kong residents lined up to read newspapers published on the Communist mainland.  See top photo, below.

The store was off limits to U.S. Navy personnel, which two of us conveniently learned only after getting our own personal copies of the Little Red Book.  (Know your enemy – I still have my copy.)

Our ship was not off limits to the Mary Soo painters, who made a living by painting ships as they lay at anchor in Hong Kong harbor.  They painted in exchange for spent brass, not for money.  Ships saved up on spent brass when anticipating a visit to Hong Kong.  Mary Soo's crew was mostly women, rescued from orphanages and shelters.  See second photo, of a Mary Soo crew painting USS Rainier.

Back then, Red China was a threat to the United States' efforts in Vietnam and Korea, as well as an authoritarian regime dangerous to its own people and to peace in the area.  It is now capitalist but still an authoritarian regime ruled with a heavy hand by the 70-year-old Chinese Communist Party, so not everything has changed.

But China increasingly blocks U.S. Navy ships from visiting Hong Kong.  The Chinese Navy dominates the South China Sea from new bases in the Paracels and Spratlys.  The United States is a fading force in the Pacific.

U.S. farmers have lost much of their carefully-developed Chinese markets because of tariff wars.  Curiously, some farmers support the tariffs as leverage over China's theft of intellectual property (IP), although it is clear the leverage works the other way, against farmers. This might make sense if the theft of agricultural sector IP was of particular value to farmers, but the theft is from monopolist seed companies which, with their patents, have already made rural life in the American heartland difficult financially.

What would help U.S. farmers with China is a Congress that would take back tariff authority from the Executive (as provided in the Constitution) and a Congress that would break up seed monopolies and override, with legislation, the 2001 Supreme Court opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas (a former Monsanto attorney who did not recuse himself), which took away many farmers' rights to their own seeds.

The U.S. should also be more helpful to the Hong Kong protesters of 2019, who are making a courageous stand for democracy.  Silence only encourages authoritarian regimes, and underscores our maritime weakness.

The bottom photo was not supposed to be blurry, but sometimes accidental photos also work out.


Two PSLF Solutions

September, 2019

Washington –  The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program of the U.S. Department of Education is an abysmal mess.  See several earlier posts on it as well as continuing major media coverage.

This post offers two solutions.  Before getting to them, new observations are in order.

• Yesterday's hearing by the House Education and Labor Committee was valuable in that two panelists who have lawsuits pending on PSLF had a chance to be heard and they acquitted themselves well.  The testimony from the Urban Institute's person, unfortuately, set back the causes his employer stands for, as he obviously tried to distract from establishing accountability.  GAO could have been stronger on its panel had there been better questions from the members. The testimony of the Department of Education's person, a civil servant without authority to comment on policy, was successful if the purpose of his appearance was to save a political appointee from having to testify under oath.

• The empty chair on the first panel was that of the loan servicer PHEAA (FedLoan), which also did not want to testify under oath, or to face its accusers.  Explaining its absence, PHEAA suggested that as a federal contractor it was not allowed to testify under directions from the Department of Education, which may be true.  The Department surely fears what PHEAA might have to say under oath if presented with evidence of wrongdoing.  Too bad PHEAA was not subpoenaed along with a political appointee from the Department.  Fortunately, the relationship between PHEAA and the Department is becoming public in another forum, a federal district court where a magistrate judge may put sanctions on both for wrongdoing in actions against unwitting borrowers in other programs.  See this letter as evidence that the Department and PHEAA are no longer on the same page; that is, working together against the interests of borrowers.  Much credit for making this situation public must go to those at the Project on Predatory Student Lending who led the legal fight, and won, on "borrower defense" law. 

• Members spent entirely too much time bemoaning the complexity of the PSLF statute and not enough on wrongdoing at the Department and among the servicers.  As statutes go, PSLF is actually fairly clear and it could have been implemented successfully had there been a will to do it.  It contains several conditions borrowers must meet to receive cancellation of the balance of their loans after ten years of public service, but the obstacles are not so much the conditions themselves as borrowers being uninformed of what they are and how to meet them.  So why were so many uninformed?  Because there was money to be made by not informing them and, shamefully, by misinforming them.  That should have been the focus of the hearing.  GAO had already pointed this out, and NASFAA has as well in a recent letter to the Committee.  There is also new, disturbing evidence that PHEAA's handling of borrower calls was designed to result in PSLF failure.

• PSLF will not be resolved successfully without focusing on wrongdoing, not complexity.  Unfortunately, only once was the word used by a member in nearly three hours of hearings.  Aggrieved borrowers are no closer to resolution than they were before the hearing.  And, if the remarks of some members are indicative, Congress will go off on a goose-chase of amending statutes and do nothing to correct the wrongs that have been done to borrowers across the country.

As to solutions, let me offer two.

First, the Secretary has broad powers under 20 USC 1082 to correct any situation in which a borrower was misinformed by a servicer, intentionally or otherwise, or any other situation that calls for intervention to protect the purpose of a program.  Previous Secretaries have used this power, most notably Secretary Spellings in 2007 when she excused lenders from repaying approximately $800 million of false claims because she said, rightly or wrongly, they may have been misled by the Department.  Now is the time to do the same for borrowers misled by the Department and by its servicers.  This could be done by outreach to borrowers separately or as part of the Temporary PSLF application.  The very purpose of TPSLF was to remedy problems with PSLF and Section 1082 (6) powers should arguably have been part of that effort in the first place.

Second, if necessary, Congress could do for PSLF what it does in other programs that people count on in their retirement planning.  For example, potential retirees in the military retirement system, CSRS, and FERS are allowed certain kinds of buy-backs to get themselves retroactively into the right programs that properly recognize their service.  If a PSLF borrower was in the wrong repayment program, or had the wrong kind of loan, or otherwise failed to meet a PSLF condition but in fact has ten years of qualifying public service, let the borrower remedy the matter and qualify.

These solutions would go a long way toward doing the right thing by the PSLF program and all the teachers, servicemen and servicewomen, first responders, and charitable workers who have been counting on it.

Meanwhile, Congress must take note of judicial sanctions and consider its own.  PHEAA has been sanctioned before by a federal district court, but to no apparent avail.  Sanctions on the Department of Education must likewise be examined: servicer wrongdoing does not happen in a vacuum.

The Med Cruise, 1964

September, 2019

Lincoln – The final training cruise for our class in the NROTC program at the University of Nebraska came in the summer between our junior and senior years, in 1964.  It was the last chance for us to learn what we needed to know at sea before we became Navy or Marine officers.

A few in the class ahead of us had come back in the fall of 1963 with stories of their cruise in the Mediterranean, preceded by a month's touring in Europe on their own.  They claimed to have witnessed President Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in Berlin before reporting to their ships.

So I wanted the fabled Med Cruise as well.  Luckily for me, in 1964 we had opportunities to go to the Med, the Far East, or stateside.  Who got what was determined by the final grade in the course on celestial navigation – calculating all those sidereal hour angles and the like (which I could not do today, for sure).  When I saw the final exam, I knew I was headed for my first choice cruise, as it was exactly the same example exam I had used to prepare the night before.

I got a Eurailpass, flew to Frankfurt, shipped my seabag to Cannes, and checked in periodically at U.S. naval attaché offices to keep track of where I was to report for training.  Slowly, I made my way to Naples, to the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65).  After a week aboard Enterprise, steaming enroute with USS Long Beach and USS Bainbridge (all nuclear-powered, see top photo below) I was in Pollensa Bay, Mallorca, to embark in USS Waller (DD-466), a destroyer that would be my home for the next five weeks.

Waller left soon for Cypress, to stand by to evacuate Americans if necessary because of hostilities on the contested island between Turkey and Greece.  Every day, Turkish and Greek warplanes flew over us to check out our nationality.  We rigged a huge canvas amidships, between the stacks, with the American flag showing on both sides.

Waller conducted exercises with other U.S. Navy ships in the area and replenished from the aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42).  The middle photo below shows Waller alongside "Rusty Rosie" with captain R.D. Sante and operations officer Mr. Christian on the bridge, along with the captain's sound-powered telephone talker and the messenger of the watch.

Eventually we were relieved off Cypress by another destroyer and sent to San Remo, Italy, for rest and resupply.  Enroute, I once stood a 4-to-8 early morning watch on the bridge with Mr. Christian, who informed me (I remember clearly because I had never heard of the place), "We are now entering the Ligurian Sea."  I used the conversation to ask if by chance he was related to Fletcher Christian, of the HMS Bounty.  Indeed, he acknowledged, he was.

San Remo was then a sleepy town on the Italian Riveria.  Townspeople came out to see USS Waller at anchor.  See lower photo.

My NU classmate Dave Wetherell chose the Far East for his 1964 cruise and served in the Tonkin Gulf.  It was right after the destroyers USS C. Turner Joy and USS Maddox were attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats, for which President Johnson asked Congress for authority to strike back through the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.  The trouble, my classmate told us all after returning to college for our senior year, was that the attacks never happened.  The ships' crews were adamant that the stories were mostly concoctions, but that was not to be known more widely for many, many years.

Student Loan Corruption, Then and Now

September, 2019

Washington – Yesterday's hearing before the House Financial Services Committee, titled "A $1.5 Trillion Crisis: Protecting Student Loan Borrowers and Holding Student Loan Servicers Accountable," invites comparisons between corruption at the Department of Education a decade ago and now.

In a way, there has been no change, because several of the same people are involved.  They have just passed once again through the revolving door that connects the loan industry, Capitol Hill, and the Department.  See more below.

But there has been a significant change, for the worse.  Fifteen years ago, corruption was led out of the Department but was curtained somewhat by the White House.  Now, it is led out of the White House and is facilitated by other departments:  OMB, CFPB, and, most ominously, the Department of Justice.

In this century's first decade, when student loan lenders were collared by the Department of Education's Inspector General (OIG) for making illegal federal subsidy claims in the billions of dollars, OMB and the Domestic Policy Council were caught off guard, as they had not been party to the various schemes.  At first, they tolerated the practices:  Secretary Margaret Spellings even went to Capitol Hill to a news conference arranged by Congressman John Boehner, whose PAC was a big recipient of political contributions from the lenders, to overturn the OIG's initial audit.

But when OIG did a second, more thorough audit, and it looked as if student loan corruption might become a political issue in the 2006 elections, the White House stepped in to review more carefully what was going on.  The Department of Education's chief of staff, David Dunn, called a meeting of lenders, lobbyists, OMB, DPC,  the Vice President's office, and Wall Street financiers to consider how to respond to the OIG's latest audit.  Industry did not get what it wanted, a "repudiation" of OIG.  Instead, it got a deal that while Secretary Spellings would agree with OIG that the subsidy claims were illegal, and always had been, she would not ask for the return of the false claims already paid. 

In time, the OIG's audit was awarded the Alexander Hamilton award as the best federal audit of the year.  The award was presented by Clay Johnson, personal friend of President Bush, at a ceremony accompanied by "The President's Own" United States Marine Band. 

It was a nice way to distance the White House from the corruption at the Department of Education.  Secretary Spellings also saw to it that two of the key players facilitating the false claims resigned.

Contrast then with now, as illuminated by Michael Stratford at Politico and Erik Ortiz at NBC News.  Secretary Betsy DeVos is obstructing law enforcement agencies – state attorneys general foremost among them – from investigating violations of student loan borrowers' consumer protections.  A different president's friend, David Urban, close to President Trump and a prominent loan servicer lobbyist (for PHEAA), has widened the scope of the effort to prioritize the interests of industry over borrowers.  Even DOJ, which once investigated corruption at Education and forced out high officials who regulated lenders while holding their company stocks, has joined in, first by trying to block Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey from suing PHEAA, and then by taking the position that the Higher Education Act preempts all but the Department of Education from enforcing consumer protections.

This position is losing in courts across the country, but not before borrowers must suffer long delays in getting their protections, if they ever do.

Late at yesterday's hearing, a Congresswoman asked a panelist if she knew who Kathleen Smith was.  The questioner answered her own question.  She was a high level Education official who has now become PHEAA's lobbyist, as Politico has pointed out and several ethicists have questioned.  That's not all.  While with John Boehner, Kathleen Smith was liaison to lenders making contributions to his PAC and a central figure in arranging the Spellings' rejection of the first OIG audit, which took place in Boehner's office.  She was also present and a key figure in the meeting with David Dunn, at which time she argued, from her position as head of the Education Finance Council, for rejection of the second OIG audit.  More recently, at the Department of Education, she signed the letter cutting off data exchanges between the Department and the CFPB, and led the effort to stop cooperating with state and local law enforcement to protect borrower's rights.

The Congresswoman called her move to lobbyist "swampy," but this goes beyond swampiness.  What we are witnessing is racketeering and corruption, with violations of law along the way by multiple people who move through the revolving door:  violations of recusals, obstruction of federal audits, perjury, and obstruction of law enforcement.

The hearing produced consensus that there is indeed a "crisis" in student loans, but got no further as to solutions.  My suggestion:  Congress must eliminate corruption from student loans, tearing it out root and branch.  The hearing was a disappointment, as the word corruption was not even uttered until 3 hours and 45 minutes into a 3 hour 50 minute hearing.   By that time, most everyone had left.

I hope no members of the House Financial Services Committee are telling constituents that they are going to fix the student loan crisis, because based on yesterday's hearing, such action is a long way off.

Meeting Governor Bullock

September, 2019

Washington – Yesterday I met Governor Steve Bullock of Montana for the first time, and came away favorably impressed with him as a presidential candidate. 

And that was before I read his most recent rural policy initiatives, which have received good reviews among people who know food and agriculture.  The Des Moines Register has a rundown of them. 

I especially like his attention to the need for regional foods hubs to create healthy food markets, an idea often mentioned in these pages but absent from other candidate's offerings. 

Governor Bullock has made getting Dark Money out of elections a priority.  He's got the record to show how it can be done.  It's the key to getting many national problems solved. 

We had a good conversation about Montana and one of his predecessors, the late Governor Tom Judge.  Tom Judge's grown kids showed Steve Bullock's young kids around the governor's mansion when they first moved in. 

I knew Governor Judge in the 1970s when he and four other governors led the Old West Regional Commission:  Jim Exon of Nebraska, Dick Kneip of South Dakota, Art Link of North Dakota, and Ed Herschler of Wyoming. 

All Democrats, by the way, which I pointed out to Steve Bullock.  It isn't that long ago that Democrats won in what are now Red states.  They were all pragmatic governors who could work with the other party.  Steve Bullock welcomes the label pragmatic progressive. 

Governor Bullock could win big in the swing states if he gets the Democratic nomination.  It's surprising that he isn't doing better in the polls, because in many ways he is an ideal candidate:  Columbia Law, Washington DC law experience, state attorney general, twice elected governor in a Red state, the right national priorities for the times, populist and progressive, young and personable. 

Some have suggested that he should run for the Senate in Montana, to help Democrats win a Senate majority.  He's not going to do that for good reason: the top of the ticket is key to winning back the Senate as much as anything else.  He could well do more for the Senate as the Democrats' presidential candidate.

There are other good candidates in the field, but Governor Bullock should be considered a top contender, and then let the voters decide. 

Corruption as a Cause of Student Loan Failures

September, 2019

Washington – Yet another GAO report on student loan program failures, yet more media coverage of the outrages, yet another House hearing promised....  How many times have we gone through this?

This time it is the new GAO report on the Temporary Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, national coverage from NPR and the Washington Post, and a promise from Congressman Bobby Scott for a September 19th hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee, of which he is chairman.  That follows a September 10th hearing before the House Financial Services Committee.

We should all reflect for a moment about a gullible young boy named Charlie Brown, a girl named Lucy, and a football.  But not laugh.  Every time Charlie Brown's student loan program equivalent is cheated out of a kick at the football, thousands of students, families, and taxpayers are cheated out of their due, their consumer protections, the benefits they have earned, and importantly, faith in their government.

It's long past due for a different approach.  The Inspector General, the GAO, and the Congress should look at the problems not as incompetence at the Department of Education and at the loan servicers, but as corruption, and investigate it for what it is.

It's not that hard, as I can attest from personal experience.  Just look first at the pronouncements and motivations of those involved.  In this case, Secretary DeVos has already informed her employees that she does not like student loan forgiveness and cancellations, regardless of the law.  The loan servicers are not fond of them either, when it results in less revenue for them.  They are also known for placing borrowers in repayment programs that are not good for the borrowers, but good for the bottom lines of the servicers.  Several state attorneys general, in addition to borrowers, have filed lawsuits.

As to investigating corruption, two suggestions:

A good spreadsheet analysis can illuminate how much is at stake and who is doing what, when.  I did such analyses on student loan lenders several years ago and was able to determine with considerable precision which revenues were lawful, and which were unlawful but were being slipped by the Department of Education with various degrees of guile.  For example, my estimate of unlawful claims by Student Loan Finance Corporation of South Dakota was $15.4 million; my estimate of unlawful claims at PHEAA was $92.0 million.  Lawsuit discovery subsequently showed the actuals to be somewhat greater but close.  And this was just the tip of the iceberg.

Once a spreadsheet analysis is completed to show where money is moving when, and how, then it can be determined who is doing it and what kinds of discussions must have happened in the C suites of the organizations to make it happen, as well as what conversations must have taken place at the Department of Education either in complicity or to try to uphold the law instead.  For example, I hypothesized a high-level discussion at PHEAA early in 2002 to move certain loans illegally into bond estates that paid higher government subsidies.  PHEAA denied it under penalty of perjury, but discovery in 2017 confirmed just such a communication between the CFO and CEO.  As to the legality of the move and others like it, another discovered email showed that PHEAA's compliance officials were told by their Washington lobbyist not to ask the Department of Education, for fear they would not like the answer.  The lobbyist instead would be asking his "off the record" informant at the Department as to the likely outcome were the question of legality asked.

Likewise, it is not difficult to reverse-engineer the decisions at lenders and servicers to anticipate their illegal moves.  Before they make them, there will be internal emails back and forth about not doing too much for fear of political ramifications and what the headline risk will be if and when someone figures out what they are doing.  Such communications can be hypothesized and then, upon investigation, actually confirmed.  It is not hard, backing in to the decisions and even the internal communications based on letting the spreadsheet numbers talk.   

From such work, a list of personnel can be prepared to show a network of corruption that extends across servicers and government. The list will overlap with people in for-profit colleges as well. Knowing who is in which position where and when can even provide predictions.

It was totally predictable, for example, that a PHEAA "compliance" official would be named student loan ombudsman at the CFPB.  It was totally predictable that the Temporary PSLF effort would not work any better than the original PSLF.  It's not hard to make sure most borrowers never get their due. 

From such work there is also explanatory value in understanding long-term issues at the Department. For example, despite the IG's 2009 finding,* the Department has never collected back over $20 million from Nellie Mae, now part of another servicer, for improper subsidy claims.  Who was once at Nellie Mae, then a consultant for SLFC, then chief of staff for a servicer now in much trouble, with long and deep connections into the Department?  If you are at the IG, GAO, the House, or the media and trying to understand why student loan programs don't work for their intended beneficiaries, and you don't know the names of those who make sure they don't, then you are not doing your job.

Enough with the reports and the outrage.  I don't want ever again to read reports or articles without names.  Identify who is responsible, and debar them from government and government contracting.** Charge perjurers with perjury.  Act as though thousands of student loan borrowers and families have their very futures hanging in the balance, because they do.

* The link to this finding no longer works.  It disappeared sometime between August 16, 2019, when it was active as a part of an earlier blog, and September 7, the date of this blog.  Lucy has apparently picked up the football yet again just as Charlie Brown approached to kick it.  The reference to the IG report on Nellie Mae is also contained in the former CFPB student loan ombudsman's testimony to Congress in 2014.  

**It's been done before at the Department of Education.  After OIG and DOJ reviews, Eugene Hickok and Matteo Fontana were fined and banned from government for their conflicts of interest.  Secretary Margaret Spellings also saw to it that three officials, whose conflicts and actions she believed were detrimental to the Department's mission and credibility, resigned:  Theresa Shaw was not retained as COO of Federal Student Aid; Assistant Secretary Sally Stroup abruptly returned to House staff; her replacement Diane Auer Jones likewise was terminated (only to return under Secretary DeVos). 

German State Elections

September, 2019

Berlin -- The German states of Brandenburg and Saxony voted last weekend, where results showed a continuing trend toward the far-right AfD party.

Nevertheless, the center-right CDU prevailed in Saxony and the center-left prevailed in Brandenburg, although both parties were weakened and may have difficulty forming governing coalitions.

The Greens and the centrist FDP also gained modestly in each state.  Much of the AfD gains came at the expense of the leftist Die Linke party.  Some analysts suggested that those inclined toward authoritarianism were shifting among themselves.  Most of the election commentary centered on the fear of immigrants as the main issue in the voting.

Not immigrants themselves.  Just fear of immigrants.  I was struck by a report in Der Tagesspiegel about the small town of Hirschfeld, on the border between the two states.  It gave the AfD its largest victory at 50.6% of the vote.  It has no immigrants.  The nearest immigrant lives twelve kilometers away.

This comports with voting patterns in the U.K. and the U.S., where immigration issues are most potent where actual immigrants and refugees are fewest.

It seems relevant to note that my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, has more immigrants and refugees per capita than any other city in the U.S.  It has been accepting refugees for decades; they and the city do well together. 

Hong Kong, Then and Now

September, 2019

Washington -- In June of 1967, USS Rainier (AE-5) entered Hong Kong harbor for a few days of rest and recreation after several weeks on the line in the South China Sea.

I was an officer on the ship, one of thirteen.  The watch bill permitted only a few of us to leave the ship at any one time, but Lt. (j.g.) George Raines (a Morehouse Man in college) and I took the first opportunity to go ashore, check into the the Hong Kong Hilton, and take long, hot showers.  We took a sampan over to a floating restaurant for dinner and slept in the next day.

We awakened to the English-language South China Morning Post as it was tossed into the hotel hallway.  It came as a shock to learn that war had broken out in Israel and that the USS Liberty, a U.S. Navy ship, had been attacked with the loss of 34 killed.

All was not peaceful in Hong Kong, either.  From our ship we had seen debris from the Chinese Cultural Revolution float down the Pearl River from the mainland.  Dead, bloated cattle.  Some sailors said they saw human corpses.  There were fears that China's Gang of Four would try to extend the Cultural Revolution into Kowloon and Hong Kong island itself.

The British ruled Hong Kong on a lease from China with 30 years yet to run, but there were also protest riots in the streets against the British.  Nearby Macau had fallen from Portuguese control just a few months earlier.

Hong Kong was not a democracy in 1967 and the British were slow to implement reforms to give the local population more say in its government.  When the lease was up in 1997, Hong Kong became part of China under the "one country, two systems" approach.  From the standpoint of 1967, this was a dubious proposition given what we knew about China at the time, and what we knew of Hong Kong's desire for democracy.

Five decades later, it is proving to be difficult to keep Hong Kong democracy down.  Hurrah for their bravery and persistence.

In the summer of 1968, I came back to Hong Kong on another ship, USS Arlington (AGMR-2).  With a much larger crew and more sailors on liberty, the ship's watch bill assigned me to Shore Patrol duty, with a nightstick, to help keep order in the Fenwick Street Pier area, a notorious sailor strip.  As I recall, it was Navy policy not to arm Shore Patrol from the fleet with guns, and wisely so.  Nightsticks.

The center of unrest in 1968 was the USA, with the assassinations of MLK and RFK, and in Europe, with student-led unrest challenging governments in Germany and France.  Hong Kong that year seemed peaceful in comparison.

The upper photo below is our Hong Kong floating restaurant in 1967.  The middle photo is USS Arlington in Hong Kong in 1968.  It is a long range communication ship; notice the antennas.  This was back in a time when electronic communications were carried over radio waves, bounced off an ever-shifting ionosphere.  Later that year, we would provide communications for the recovery of Apollo 8.  The bottom photo shows Hong Kong harbor from Victoria Peak: I am in civvies, in a shirt made by Hong Kong tailors.

Get Your Hands Dirty, Nebraska Farmer

September, 2019

Lincoln -- Amid a recent avalanche of news stories from coast to coast about how farmers are having second thoughts about what President Trump is doing to their export markets, appeared this gem:  "We need to get back to farming instead of worrying about politics," said a Nebraska farmer.  

With all due respect, no.  Your politics put the market-destroyer in power, and it is your politics that will have to be the remedy.  Furthermore, it's not just export markets that he is destroying, and you know it.  It's soil conservation programs; solid science at USDA; health and nutrition.  Above all, it's basic truth and decency.

You are going to have to get your hands dirty in politics, my fellow Nebraska farmer.  You will have to start talking to your neighbors in your social circle in small town cafés, veterans' halls, churches, schools, and across fence lines.  Here is what you could say to start the conversation:

"Friends, it was a good ride we had, thinking that this TV entertainer had all the answers, that he would set everything right with his deal-making skills, his business acumen, his bringing into government all the best people.  We should have known better.  In fact, we did know better.  We knew deep down that a bankrupt, a philanderer, a big talker, a man with no experience in government, would not be good for us....  

"Now it's time to make our voices heard that we have come to our senses.  We need to look at alternatives and support those who will represent us and our values.  This will mean looking at candidates, at all levels, regardless of party, evaluating proposals, contributing to campaigns, and volunteering to help get good, competent, experienced people elected....

"It's time we get our hands dirty and get to work in the political process.  Only then we can wash our hands of a false leader who has misled us."

Such talk is starting to happen.  Will rural America signal candidates that minds are open once again and ready to engage?  Surely so; what more could it take?